When Do You Consider Breaking the Rules?

John R. Stoker is the author of  “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of Dialogue WORKS, Inc.  His organization helps clients and their teams improve leadership engagement in order to achieve superior results. He is an expert in the fields of leadership, change, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked and spoken to such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, and AbbVie. Connect with him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. 

12 Questions to Help to Assess Your Company’s Effectiveness

Recently my assistant told me a fun story from her family history that involved her grandfather, Paul, who had been a soldier in the German army during World War II. When the war ended, Paul and the rest of his unit were captured near Kiel by the British army, who were the occupying force in northwest Germany. (The Russians occupied the northeast, the French the southwest, and the US Army the southeast quadrants of Germany.) The relationship between the former Allies was a tenuous one—the US, France, and Britain got along well, but they were uneasy about Russia’s intentions now that the Germans had been defeated.

The British army found itself in a particularly difficult situation: their area of occupation included the Kiel Canal, the waterway access channel between the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. Imagine it: the Brits looking at the Baltic Sea full of Russian Navy vessels who might very well use the Kiel Canal to spread out into the North Sea and take control of the vital international shipping lanes out of Hamburg, Bremerhaven, Copenhagen, and so on. Technically, however, Russia was an ally, so the British had to figure out how to prevent the Russian Navy from accessing the Kiel Canal, and more importantly, how to do it without using any overt aggression that could cause further diplomatic awkwardness. Also a consideration, the British Army did not have the resources required to repel the Russians should they decided to make a military move to seize access.

Acting contrary to the Geneva Convention, the British broke a few rules. They took German Prisoners of War (POW’s), including Paul and his unit, and dressed them in British uniforms, removed insignias from the German equipment and anti-aircraft guns, and positioned them in full view of all ships in the Kiel harbor. As they had a lot of POW’s and a lot of seized equipment, this created an impressive display of “British” military presence in the northwest quadrant and specifically at the mouth of the Kiel Canal. The ruse was successful—the Russians quietly withdrew from the Kiel harbor and went about their Baltic Sea business.

The British army now faced another issue. Once the commandeered POW’s had done this “favor” for the Allies, they could not be reimprisoned with the POW population because they could very well have been considered traitors to the German cause, putting their lives in danger. So these POW’s were released and given papers and safe passage to their homes, well in advance of any other POW’s being released from post-war custody.

As Paul rode the train from Kiel south to his home in Ulm (in the American-controlled quadrant), he noticed clusters of teenage boys hanging about the platforms in train stations where they stopped, not seeming to know where they should go next. (Toward the end of the war, boys as young as 14 and 15 had been recruited to fight in the German army.) According to the rules of occupation, if these boys had been identified as former soldiers, any of the occupying armies would have immediately imprisoned them as POW’s.

Paul told several of the boys, “You are part of our unit now. Get on board.” As members of the unit with safe passage, the boys returned to Ulm with Paul, where he re-opened his bakery and gave them all jobs for a couple of months. After being “civilians” with employment for a period of time, they were able to obtain papers which allowed them to travel or return home without the threat of being returned to a POW camp or prison.

I am not suggesting that you break your company’s rules. However, with all the changes that are occurring in the way we work, learning to challenge what is not working can help us to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our work. Here are some questions you might ask yourself for challenging “the rules” and making needed changes.

  1. What isn’t working? With all that is changing about the way that we are now working, some of our past processes or protocols may no longer be relevant or as effective as in they were just a year ago. What changes can and should be made?
  2. Where are people doing work-arounds? When an old process doesn’t work, people usually figure out a way to circumvent the rules by going around them. Years ago at a nuclear power plant, I learned that employees were required to fill out lengthy amounts of paperwork to obtain resources they needed to do their jobs, often a multi-day process. They started ordering duplicate supplies when they made a request and then hid their “extras” in a room that became known as the “rat hole.” Using this informal room of supplies was the way they got around the arduous process of requesting resources and then having to wait 48 hours before they could do the required work.
  3. What do people complain about? When there are processes that are long and cumbersome, people will usually complain amongst themselves about what they are required to do. If you are privy to these conversations, you will soon become aware of what needs to be addressed. If you aren’t hearing about any complaints, invite people to share their ideas about what things are causing them difficulties.
  4. What has become cumbersome? This is closely related to the question above, but if you can identify what is no longer easy or what has become a bottleneck to achieving the desired results, then perhaps it is something that needs to be changed.
  5. Consider what you are doing and ask, “What is good? What would be better? What would be best?” Sometimes you might need to stop and discover the greater good in what you are trying to accomplish. How could the example of Paul’s gathering up the straggling young boys and providing them employment so they could return home without being placed in prison inspire change in your organization?

Learning to challenge what is not working can help us to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our work.

  1. What are your company’s priorities? Sometimes an organization’s priorities change and leaders don’t stop to assess whether the actions people are taking are correctly aligned with the new set of priorities. Sometimes a change in priority happens so quickly that people just keep doing what they always done because they aren’t aware of the change. Has the change in priorities been effectively communicated? How can you help people achieve the new priorities?
  2. What problems are worth going after? This question forces you to examine what’s truly important. Often what management thinks is important is not what the employees deem to be appropriate. One reason for this disconnect may occur when outside clients have provided feedback about what is most important to them, causing the forward-facing employees to change tactics to accommodate these clients. If there has been a lack of communication between the people serving the client and organization leadership then the items of most importance may have gone unidentified.
  3. Do you communicate what you are trying to accomplish and why? Your directions must be clear and people need to know the “why” for doing what they are doing. The “why” becomes the motivation for making the kind of contribution you desire them to make. If you are not getting the results you want, then you need to determine what people are being told about the expected results.
  4. Is what is not working been tagged as someone else’s problem? Really what you are asking with this question is, “Who is responsible?” and, “Do they know they are responsible?” It is not uncommon for people to assume that someone else is responsible for a particular outcome, when truth be known, no one has been clearly identified as the person who owns the problem. You would do well to ask this question and then check with person who you think is responsible to see if they are on the same page.
  5. When is it appropriate to challenge the existing rules? If you haven’t clearly specified when someone can openly and honestly express their frustration if something is not working, then people are going to keep their mouths shut and say nothing.
  6. Are people afraid to speak up, to offer a new idea, or to express dissatisfaction with what isn’t working? If your organization does not have a culture that values candor, openness, and learning, then don’t expect that people will speak up. Employees are often assessing what the negative consequences to them will be if they disagree with the status quo. If you want people to voice their opinions, then you must begin by soliciting people’s ideas, listening to them, and implementing their suggestions when what they are recommending will make a difference.
  7. Are your people engaged? Do people take initiative, support one another, and enjoy what they are doing? If you don’t know, then perhaps you should take steps to find out. Engagement has a direct impact on morale, culture, productivity, work satisfaction, and retention, objectives that most organizations highly value. People are engaged in endeavors where they are valued and know that they make a difference. When engagement is lacking, organizational effectiveness also suffers.

Thinking about your organization’s rules or protocols and their effectiveness can be an interesting exercise. When something you are doing or trying to accomplish is not working, then it is time to take an in-depth look at what adjustments need to be made and how you can effect change. Carefully considering these suggestions and making needed course corrections can allow your organization to continue to grow and flourish, even in a changing landscape.

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